‘Snow White Christmas’ Star Olivia Sanabia Explains Panto: ‘Boo for the Bad Guys, Cheer for the Good’

Disney Channel actress plays the title role in the 10th annual Lythgoe Family Panto, also starring Michelle Willams and Neil Patrick Harris

Olivia Sanabia Snow White
Photo by Curtis Brown

If only it was acceptable in life to publicly boo everything we didn’t like — it would definitely make going to the movies more fun, and a lot louder.

Fortunately, the Lythgoe Family Panto is keeping the U.K.’s most raucous holiday season tradition alive with “A Snow White Christmas,” which opens Friday for a limited engagement until Dec. 22 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California.

“The best thing about panto is that it’s an interactive experience for everybody — the kids can come and they don’t have to be quiet in their seats,” Disney Channel star Olivia Sanabia, who plays the title role of Snow White, explains. “They can boo the bad guys, cheer for the good ones, and really express themselves. They feel like they’re part of the story and the experience. I love that instant gratification of knowing what the audience thinks.”

The 16-year-old “Coop & Cami Ask the World” actress admitted that she is also a little nervous about the open forum-style theater that dates back to 16th century Britain. “I’ve never experienced having the audience talk back to you when you’re on a stage, so it’s definitely going to be new for me,” she said.

With a cast that includes Grammy winner Michelle Williams as the Wicked Queen, Jared Gertner (Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon”), Garrett Clayton (“Teen Beach Movie,” “Hairspray Live!”), Michael Campion (Netflix’s “Fuller House”), and Tony Award-winner Neil Patrick Harris as the On Screen Magic Mirror, the audience should have nothing to grumble about when it comes to the performances.

While Harris’ part as the Mirror were pre-recorded, Sanabia had plenty of praise for her on-stage nemesis, Destiny’s Child alum Williams. “She plays the most evil character but in the most lovable way possible because she is such a wonderful person. Getting to hear her sing every day is just a true pleasure, everyone stopped what they were doing during rehearsals just to listen to her,” Sanabia gushed.

The British-born Lythgoe family is credited for introducing U.S. audiences to the nuances of panto, with “Snow White” marking their 10th annual production. “They did such a fantastic job of bringing the phenomenon over here to America and teaching everyone what this is,” Sanabia told TheWrap. “It’s a really special thing for the holidays and I think there should be more shows that involve the whole family. There is something for everyone, so I am very proud to be part of it and proud of the Lythgoes for what they are doing.

“Another amazing part of panto is that it is a musical but it’s combined with contemporary pop songs, so they are songs that kids, teenagers and even the parents know,” she continued, along with dance performances from “So You Think You Can Dance” alumni.

Along with her acting credits that include Amazon’s “Just Add Magic,” Sanabia released her debut single “Stars Crossed,” last month, which she says was “deeply inspired by my love of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — it’s an alternate take on the timeless classic.” Currently playing the dream role of her favorite princess, Snow White, her next bucket list role is to play Shakespeare’s famous female protagonist, Juliet Capulet.

“A Snow White Christmas” is directed by Bonnie Lythgoe and choreographed by Emmy Award winners Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo (NappyTabs), with book by Kris Lythgoe. The production has music supervision, arrangements, and musical direction by Michael Orland. Casting is by executive producer Becky Lythgoe and Andrew Lynford, CSA.